Lessons Learned in Moving Learning and Leadership Coaching Online

The pandemic required HR leaders in the learning and development, employee coaching, and skills certifications spaces to move their in-person operations online with little time to prepare.

By Dave Zielinski August 21, 2020
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The arrival of the coronavirus required human resource leaders to be at their nimble best in rapidly moving a host of in-person processes and practices online. While recruiters faced arguably some of the biggest adjustments in transitioning the interviewing and onboarding of job candidates to virtual environments, their counterparts in the learning and development, employee coaching, and skills certifications spaces faced the equally challenging task of transporting their in-person operations online with little time to prepare.

As the dust begins to settle six months into the pandemic, leaders of those functions are conducting after-action reviews and finding lessons learned that they can apply to the future use of HR technology platforms. Many who had leveraged those systems only infrequently before the COVID-19 crisis have developed a new appreciation for the advantages—and the obstacles—of delivering learning content, coaching sessions, performance management and certification processes virtually. 

Those lessons are vital because some research shows that learning and development may become even more strategically important to organizations after the pandemic. A May survey by LinkedIn Learning found that 74 percent of global respondents believe building new skills is the most critical part of rebuilding organizations for the post-COVID-19 world. Some 66 percent of those respondents also said their learning function has emerged as a more strategic part of their organizations during the pandemic.

Moving Learning Online

Learning departments that had yet to transition much of their instructor-led classroom learning online faced a bigger challenge than most during the coronavirus outbreak. As these departments rapidly went virtual with essential education such as sales training or leadership development, many opted for the “quick fix” of a webconferencing format, says Charlie Chung, vice president of business development for NovoEd, an online learning platform provider in San Francisco. 

A May survey by LinkedIn Learning found that 74 percent of global respondents believe building new skills is the most critical part of rebuilding organizations for the post-COVID-19 world.

Webconferences are synchronous sessions that usually run for less than an hour and include training methods such as PowerPoint slides, shared whiteboards, audience chat tools and polls. Synchronous learning occurs in real time and typically features facilitator/participant interaction and feedback. Asynchronous methods allow employees to learn on their own time from any location and don’t require real-time interaction.

“I liken webconferences to an emergency response,” Chung says. “They can work well with certain topics that can be addressed in a short period with a smaller audience. But they’re more of a stopgap measure that typically can’t be used effectively for longer learning programs.”

In some cases, companies tried to convert programs that lasted four hours in person to 30-to-45-minute webconferences. 

“If you strip out all of the extraneous material, you might be able to get a half-day of in-person training down to two hours in a virtual setting, and a full-day in-person session down to maybe four hours online,” Chung says. “But if you try to deliver a webconference that’s more than 90 minutes, people begin to tune out and multitask.” Including more than 20 or 30 people in a webconference also makes personalizing the instruction more difficult, Chung says. 

Some also mistakenly viewed the conversion of in-person learning to online learning as a “one-for-one” proposition, says Summer Salomonsen, head of Cornerstone Studios, an arm of industry vendor Cornerstone OnDemand that develops original learning content. 

“There was a belief that an in-person training program that’s an hour long should be converted to an hourlong video, for example,” Salomonsen says. But that didn’t factor in shorter participant attention spans in virtual settings. 

Best Practices

Learning experts say there are two recommended practices that organizations can consider when converting in-person training to virtual environments. These concepts apply primarily to strategically important content that requires a mix of synchronous and asynchronous delivery approaches and where a greater level of interaction with facilitators and peers is key to learning retention: 

Break up learning content. Learning retention and application often improve when content such as leadership development; digital transformation; or diversity, equity and inclusion are broken up into their component parts and spread over time. The goal should be for participants to spend a few hours a week over multiple weeks on such online courses, Chung says.

“The idea is to pull together different resources, different activities and use different modalities to deliver content,” he continues. “Rather than asking people to sit through four or five 90-minute webconferences, it’s better to give them some short, facilitator-created videos or TED Talks to watch, relevant articles to read, podcasts to listen to, as well as things like PowerPoint presentations.” 

Creating self-paced asynchronous learning tools, such as bulletin boards or discussion groups, for use in the time between live webinars can enhance previously delivered content and allow for participant interaction anytime, anywhere. Such a curriculum might conclude with a wrap-up webconference to discuss what was learned. “The more media and peer-to-peer learning you use, the more senses you engage and the deeper and more effective the learning can be,” Chung says.

Hastily converted online learning that’s focused only on general concepts, memorization tasks or multiple-choice knowledge checks is likely to receive eye rolls from employees.

“The most powerful virtual learning experiences are those that springboard participants back into their real-world work,” Salomonsen says. “The learning can’t live and die on the computer or be seen as a separate event. There has to be a clearly visible connection back to the work and a pathway to practice new skills or apply knowledge, because that’s how we learn best.” 

Make wise use of facilitators. The more ways facilitators can stay engaged with participants during virtual learning, the better, Chung says. The knowledge that a facilitator is involved to monitor progress, review project work or answer questions—ensuring that online learners don’t feel they’re left to their own devices—is key to keeping employees on task and motivated to learn, he explains.

Peer-to-peer learning can also help boost learner engagement and produce broader and richer insights. Some of NovoEd’s courses require participants to review and comment on the project work of four or five of their classmates. That might involve such assignments as creating a project management template for a project they’ll be working on.

Organizations that deployed micro-learning during the pandemic—virtual training that’s often laser-focused on specific topics and delivered in small segments to accommodate employees’ busy work schedules—often experienced high usage of that content amid remote work, experts say.

James Cook, a London-based global partner in workforce development for IBM, says the average length of learning content for the thousands of courses and activities in IBM’s learning ecosystem has been reduced in recent years from an hour to about three minutes. 

“Rather than blocks of learning, we’re focused on atoms of learning and allowing employees to assemble those atoms according to their needs at the time,” Cook says.  

Virtual Coaching Takes Off During the Pandemic

As leaders and managers grappled with daunting new challenges amid the COVID-19 outbreak, organizations saw a need to provide them with additional coaching and support. With in-person mentoring and coaching not possible, many turned to virtual coaching platforms.

One such platform is Cultivate, which provides managers who choose to opt in to the program with data-based insights into how they communicate with, reward and lead their teams in remote-working scenarios. The tool uses natural language processing to scan words in and metadata of managers’ e-mail messages, chats and other online communications to identify important patterns.

screen arrowCultivate’s analytics can show managers how their leadership behaviors may have changed since moving to remote work, for example. “It can show who they’ve been most responsive to on their teams, how good they’ve been at providing recognition and feedback, or whether they’re sending too many after-hours messages,” says Joe Freed, co-founder and CEO of the San Francisco-based company. “That digital form of leadership can have the same impact on employee engagement, well-being, burnout and inclusion as the in-person type.”

Analytics created by the software are often eye-openers for managers, Freed says. “Maybe when they were in the office, they sent 10 percent of their e-mail after work hours but saw it increase to 30 percent during remote work. Or maybe they didn’t send a lot of requests to employee X before but now are sending twice that amount.”

The software can be used to nudge managers into more positive coaching or responding behaviors, Freed says. Nudges might include providing a summary of analytics or sending educational content, such as relevant articles.

German software company SAP used the Cultivate platform to provide more leadership insights to its managers. According to a report about SAP’s experience written by RedThread Research, a human capital research firm in Woodside, Calif., SAP employed the virtual coaching tool with 250 of its sales managers. After using the platform, 83 percent of those managers reported improved self-awareness of how they interact with their teams. 

Virtual coaching platform Pluma also experienced heightened demand during the pandemic. The platform enables managers at all levels of an organization to work with a credentialed, highly experienced coach via video sessions and messaging.

“Many in the learning and development space were looking for leadership coaching that was digital-ready,” says Alexandra Connell, co-founder of Pluma, which is based in San Francisco. “There was a need during COVID-19 to help leaders manage their own work/life balance and stress, in addition to helping them manage their work team’s morale and concerns. How do you maintain worker morale when a business turns off its lights overnight, for example, or during reopening when employees are concerned about their health in going back to the office?”

Chasity Green, senior manager of leadership and development for Asurion, a technology support company in Nashville, Tenn., was among those who turned to Pluma to extend to managers at all levels of her organization the coaching opportunities that had once been reserved for top executives.

“As we started working virtually, more managers began leveraging the coaching platform for the benefit of themselves and for their teams,” Green says. “We’ve found it can be helpful to have a space external to the organization to provide additional insight and support for our leaders.” —D.Z


Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.

Illustration by Michael Korfhage for HR Magazine.


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